Caring for Kids…at Billings Clinic

When they want a phone

What do you do when your 10-year-old wants a smartphone and all you hear is, “But, all my friends have iPhones, mom, and I’m the ONLY one that doesn’t have one!”  We caved with my 13-year-old last summer because he was going into middle school and most certainly would have been a complete social reject without one. But, my ten-year-old does seem a little too young.  With power comes great responsibility…something she certainly does not possess to the level of owning a portable $200 computer yet.

Smartphones are the pinnacle of tween/teen social status symbols.  For my generation (GenX), a swatch watch and Walkman put you on the edge of fashion and techno savvy. Now-a-days, carrying the latest portable handheld entertainment device shows the other kids that you are truly cool (especially if you have the newest model of smartphone).  But, we all know this technology has many more implications than listening to a cassette tape of Bon Jovi.  All of the apps, social media, texts, calling features, etc. serve as a portal to an entire electronic dimension of which many GenX parents have only rudimentary knowledge, at least I do.  Social media has exploded way beyond Facebook (which is completely archaic in the eyes of my 13 year old).  Can someone tell me what the difference is between Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter?  I have no idea?!

But, I do know this:  Allowing your tween/teen access to a smartphone should come with a lot of communication and ground rules.  Also, they must demonstrate a level of maturity and responsibility before being allowed to own such a powerful and expensive device.  If you have any hesitation about trusting your adolescent, or feel they are not ready, then stick to your gut instinct and wait. 

I also know, however, that ignoring this technology and not engaging your family around properly using it is a recipe for disaster.  The smartphone opens many opportunities and can be an avenue to teach responsibility in our mobile age—we aren’t going back to rotary, folks!

What age is a “good age” to give your kid a smartphone? I would argue the number is less important than their maturity level.  Look for these commonsense signs:

  1. They show appreciation and respect for owning expensive technology and are probably responsible enough not to lose or break it.
  2. They know how to use it (Let’s face it–they know how to use them way better than we do!). 
  3. They understand safety and financial traps and missteps they might encounter with use and show a healthy respect for personal privacy, security codes, parental approval before making any purchases, appropriate video/picture posting, cyber bullying, and over-sharing.
  4. They understand your cell phone provider’s usage and data plan, so as not to accrue extra charges or fees.
  5. They are able to engage in real human social interaction and communication without needing a screen.

All of this and more sets the stage for a successful launch into the mobile techno world.  I have not regretted this past year of my son’s smartphone ownership one bit.  In fact, it has opened another platform to interact and engage with him and has expanded our common ground.  Think of it as this generations’ rite of passage.  Maybe getting their driver’s license will be easier.  LOL!

Michelle Pierson, MD

Hi! My name is Michelle Pierson and I am a wife, mom, and general pediatrician at the Billings Clinic. I am excited about this blog and the opportunity to reach out to parents in my hometown of Billings. Growing up here and raising my own kiddos in this community gives me some perspective on how we can take care of our children's health with the resources we have in the region. I get great joy from my family and job, and a good piece of chocolate cake! A good book and "cuddle time" with my kids on the couch rank up there pretty high too.

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